The past few weeks have been a whirlwind of preparation, work, adventure and goodbyes. We spent our last week in Fort Dauphin with our homestay families, so it was fairly chill on the traveling front, but coincided with an uptick in schoolwork. Our big project was a Natural Resources Portfolio that normally focuses on a tangible resource like wood or water, but, as the hipster that I am, I decided to argue that twins are a natural resource…which basically meant that I spent a week studying the cultural practices regarding twins in the Mananjary region of Madagascar. In addition to research, I interviewed an older gent who lived there for most of his life and got a really interesting perspective on things. There is too much to say about the subject, but here’s a brief run down of my findings:
- Twins are taboo in the region and were killed up until the early 1990s at birth in a whole slew of horrifying ways
- There are several NGOs working in the area now trying to change how twins are treated, one even started an orphanage specifically for twins
- In 2007 the government finally outlawed the abandonment of children, but because the government is so corrupt, laws aren’t executed, so there hasn’t been much progress
- Twins are removed immediately after birth and given to the first person that takes them, or they are abandoned. If the people who adopt them live in the same village the children are never allowed to interact or enter the house of their biological family
- The first born twin is considered the fake, imposter child because they don’t ‘bear the placenta’ and for the majority of mothers who die in child birth the placenta doesn’t ever come out, so basically for multiple births the age order is reversed
- Twins in all regions of Madagascar are supposed to have curative powers of massage, so if somebody has an ailment, they seek out twins to give them a massage
And the list goes on, but that’s a general overview.
On Sunday the 17th we headed to the airport because the 45-minute flight to Tulear would take 3 full days of driving due to horrible road conditions. Flying was definitely one of the weirder experiences I have had here: the flight left on time, the seats were really cushy, I had enough room for my legs, there was no turbulence and it was just so modern and swanky. Needless to say, after the bumpy crowded TATA rides, economy flights seem like the lap of luxury, so the trip back to the states will be a peace of cake. Our arrival in Tulear marked the start of our three-week long road trip through the country before ISP. We spent four days camping just outside of the city and went into town a couple times to have classes at the Institute Halieutiques de Sciences Marines, an institute of higher education. They have their own marine museum complete with several preserved living fossil fish which are colossal and scary looking so it would definitely make it an exciting fishing trip to accidentally reel one in.
The first night in Tulear we hiked up Table Mountain, which is a very flat mountain that consists mainly of sandstone so the wind shears off flat layers, hence the name. We brought a traditional healer or Ombiasa with us, and he told us the medicinal uses of many plants on the hike up, most were aphrodisiacs. Once we reached the top, the Ombiasa climbed down into a little hole while we sat on the North and West sides of the hole and he performed a traditional prayer for us. Halfway through we had to share offerings with the ancestors, so a bottle of coke and a bottle of rum (chaser first, then shot) were passed around along with a few crackers and cookies. The half-drunk/consumed items were then left in the hole for the ancestors and the prayer was finished just before sunset. We then all quickly clambered over to the best vantage point to watch/photograph the setting of the sun over the Mozambique Channel, which was absolutely stunning but shockingly quick.
[Skip this paragraph if you’re going to eat in the next hour]. On the last night of camping before heading into Tulear, we had a large celebratory party with the local village. Since celebrations are a big deal there was going to be a live band, a sheep and goat roast and of course lots of dancing. That morning we were given the option to watch the sheep and goat sacrifice, which I decided was something I should see as a person who eats both of these animals on occasion. Not everybody wanted to witness this, so a small group trekked over and watched in mounting anxiety as they dragged forward the cute black goat and sheep. Given that I had already killed a chicken, I figured that I would be able to fairly easily watch the sacrifice, however, even though I was not responsible for physically taking the life of the animals this time, it was much more difficult to stomach that the chickens.
The hardest moment was definitely watching as the shocking scarlet blood shot out of his neck as the animal tried gasping for breath but couldn’t breath through his torn windpipe so this loud gasping noise erupted from his throat. At this point, all but three of us quickly departed. I stayed mainly because I wanted to see how they prepared the meat and was pleasantly surprised to see that the ‘butcher’ was mahay (capable). He had the goat completely skinned and gutted in less than ten minutes and made it look like a fancy art form. In retrospect I’m glad I stayed because it gave some closure to the whole experience and now I know how the process happens, start to finish.
After a couple days in Tulear, one of the touristy towns, popularized for their pousse-pousse taxis (which are two wheeled wooden carts that people sit in and get pulled around by a running man or biker) we headed north to visit a few NGOs. First was Ho Avy, which works with replanting fast growing trees that people can use for firewood. We spent the afternoon there and each planted one or two baby trees and then tried fresh sugarcane, which was strangely reminiscent of good coconut water.
That night we stayed at L’aubergine, which is this bungalow style hotel. We paired off and picked a bungalow each, Kelli and I grabbed one in the back corner of the compound. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a bad call, because strangely enough the dark back corner next to the fence it a good spot for robbers to hop the fence, get into your room and steal your bag. Hypothetical? I wish. Kelli and I both lost many items, but to quote Kelli “if there is one thing I have learned from this country it is how little material possessions matter”. The next morning we tied our few articles of clothing in our lambas on the ends of sticks and carried them around like hobos, it got a few laughs and brightened the mood, so that was good.
We then all ate breaky under the large Tamarine tree in the center of town before heading over to Reef Doctor to hit up the snorkeling life. We piled into balanced pirogues and sailed out to the barrier reef with building excitement. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such large black sea urchins or bright purple and teal parrotfish, the latter was fun to chase around the reef, usually I lost them, but I did manage to follow one for about twenty minutes. Eventually we had to head back in, much to our disappointment, but the adventure must continue. In the afternoon we stopped by Honko, an NGO that works with mangrove restoration, and explored the mangroves for a bit. I really enjoyed watching all the bright brick red crabs come scurrying out of the thick mud only to see vazahas and immediately dart back into their safe little holes.
The next stop on our road-trip North was Isalo national park and it was a geologists dream. Tall, towering sandstone formations in every direction and nestled between two large cliffs was an icy mountain stream and lush rainforest. We hiked a short 30 minutes into our camping area then continued on towards the famous Piscine Noir Naturelle (black natural pool), which was an immensely deep, dark natural pool of water filled by a waterfall. Of course we all dove in and were shocked by how refreshingly cold it was. Thanks to the modern invention of waterproof cameras, many fun moments were forever captured, including jumping through the waterfall and underwater selfies.
After way too short a time, we headed back to camp, still stunned by the beauty of the rainforest stream through the canyons. That night we had literally the best chicken I have ever eaten for dinner, then everyone proceeded to quickly pass out. The last highlight of Isalo was a surprise visit from a troop of wild brown lemurs to our breakfast area. Since I got my rabies pre-exposure shots, I risked feeding one of them!
I held out half a banana and the little tyke quickly placed his two front paws onto my forearm and snatched the prize from my hand. He retreated about 12 inches and munched down on his scrumptious breaky. Two things of note: lemur paws are super squishy, soft and warm; and while he was preoccupied eating, I had time to snag a lemur selfie, score! We spent the next couple hours hiking over some of the mountains to a second natural pool/waterfall before all piling onto the TATA bus to head north.
We reached the Anja Community Reserve, which is a small, lush forest with a very high density of healthy ringtailed lemurs, that evening and set up camp. In the morning we hiked through the woods and saw lemurs in action, scrambled up and down some shear rocks, briefly rappelled 10 feet or so and learned about turning natural worm silk into scarves. Not bad for under two hours. Our next stop was Andringitra, which, with little doubt, is one of my favorite places here. After a truly scary bus ride, mainly due to planks on the bridges we were driving over literally breaking under us, we reached the parking lot.
Then everyone grabbed their gear for the next two days and started the four kilometer, hour and fifteen minute hike up a mountain to our base camp while the sun set. Since we were at a much higher elevation than usual, it was actually quite chilly, cold enough even that we could see our breath. The first night Jenna and I shared my tent so that we could stay warm, but even that wasn’t quite enough, so the second night we squeezed Anna into the little two person tent and were much more comfortable.
We hiked 20 km up Peak Boby, the tallest accessible mountain in Madagascar, and were rewarded by some of the most breathtaking views since arriving in this picturesque country. The thick, puffy white clouds hung just below the peaks of the surrounding mountains so that peering off into the distance was like staring at a never ending pearly floor dotted by a few jutting rocks and a clear blue sky above. Unfortunately, since it was so high up, the weather changed pretty quickly and started spitting cold rain into our faces, but it was fairly refreshing and we had all brought jackets in anticipation of Boby’s mood swings. After we returned to camp, I jumped into the crisp perfectly clear mountain stream to rinse off and relax my muscles.
The next morning we hiked back down to the bus, and began our journey north yet again. Minor glitch, we hit a large, unexpected bump and my head bashed into the window latch. Long story short, I got a pretty intense headache and when we reached the next big town, I went to the hospital to get my head checked out. The doc ordered an X-Ray (which was a fun experience since the machine was pretty old-school), looked at it for a couple minutes and then was like, ‘dude, you need to go to Tana for an MRI’…only joking. It was more like “vous n’avez pas briser votre tête, mais il pourrait y avoir des lésions tissulaires, alors vous avez besoin d’aller à Tana pour une scan cerebralle”. Aka, I had to leave the group and drive (not personally) 10 hours overnight to the capitol for an early morning MRI. After searching a bit through the maze of a hospital, we finally found somebody who could read the MRI and she informed me that there was no obvious damage, but that I needed three days of rest and a couple drugs. Which all really meant that I wasn’t going to get to see Ranamafana National Park with my friends. Momentary shout out to my group that gave me an Easter basket to-go for my unplanned trip, you’re the best! But not to worry, I’m pretty much 100% again and itching to go camping and stare at the infinity of stars rather than infinity of 3 million lights.